F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.

The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?